CAIRN-INT.INFO : International Edition

1This work, edited by Laurie Laufer and Florence Rochefort, contains 11 contributions by 17 authors. The themes covered are so diverse that the chapters have not been divided up into sections. The authors draw on many different disciplines and approaches, including grammar and linguistics, social anthropology, biology and anatomy, the neurosciences, film, sports, education, occupational studies, “care,” sex work, sexuality, psychoanalysis, religious debate on same-sex marriage and the offensive recently launched in France against “gender theory.” The work arrives at a time when gender studies are acquiring increasing importance in scientific research in France (in journals and book series, research groups and institutions, education, academic conferences, etc.) and the question of gender (in education, marriage, same-sex parenthood, etc.) has become the focus of occasionally heated media, political and citizen debate. The scientific concept of gender, defined and discussed in extremely diverse terms in the academic world, has thus been catapulted into “lay” debate in France. This development is the first to be analysed in the book.

2Before presenting a considerable quantity of research findings, the work analyses and deconstructs how the idea of “gender theory” was developed by conservative Catholic movements in an attempt to de-legitimate scientific research on gender. The word “gender” itself (genre in French) has been contested in France, including within the research world itself; in 1995, for example, when its use was called into question by the national terminology commission. The first chapter thus focuses on grammar, the notion of gender in linguistics, and French discussions about importing the American concept of “gender” and how to translate the term.

3The book in fact undertakes a history of concepts and practices, including controversial ones. The genealogy of “gender” is retraced in detail (chapters by Chevalier and Planté, Laufer), starting from 1955, when the term was forged by the psychologist John Money in connection with his study of “gender roles” and children. In 1964 the psychiatrist Robert Stoller used the term “gender identity” for the first time, in discussing his work with inter-sexed patients. At the outset, then, gender was a descriptive concept that had no particular connections to feminism. However, feminist researchers were the ones to adopt and diffuse it. And in 1988, the term was introduced into France by way of the translation of Joan W. Scott’s 1986 article, “Gender: a useful category of historical analysis.”

4At around the same time, in the 1990s, the Vatican’s Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, the body in charge of specifying Catholic theology and doctrine, began compiling texts for the purpose of de-legitimating the gender notion and gender studies. The term “gender theory” was coined to this end; i.e., to contest the scientific value of research in this area and show that such studies were nothing more than political positions, positions that could therefore be contested in the name of morality (rather than religion).

5Different stages in this reactionary project – a project of the sort traditionally analysed in the social sciences in terms of “moral panic” (chapter by Bozon) – are mentioned several times in the work because the authors are concerned to situate the scientific discussion as thoroughly as possible in its political context.

6At the core of current hostility towards gender studies is the idea of nature, which stands opposed to the notion of the social construction of identities, behaviours and norms. The book purports to analyse and deconstruct anti-gender rhetoric – this, indeed, is why it was published. And the institution that has invested most heavily and persistently in combating gender is the Catholic Church. Consequently, while the chronology of anti-gender actions by Catholic movements is recalled in detail (chapter by Rochefort), the book does not discuss any other religion or spiritual group. The 1994 International Conference on Population (Cairo) and the 1995 World Conference on Women (Beijing) were what led the Vatican and later its related networks to mobilize against the gender idea. It was shortly after this that research on gender developed in France at the academic, publishing and institutional levels. The largest anti-gender demonstrations were sparked by government measures: demonstrations in 1998-99 against the PACS (Pacte civil de solidarité), a new form of civil union open to same-sex couples; in 2011 against state-approved high school biology study programmes that mentioned sexual orientation without specifying the sex; in 2012-2013 against government measures legalizing same-sex marriage; and in 2013-2014 against an experimental teaching programme in the French schools called the “ABCD of equality”, designed to combat gender stereotypes.

7From a second interpretative perspective, the work is itself a textbook, presenting a remarkably complete, up-to-date review of research on gender, the diversity of that research, and contradictory findings within it. Molinier’s chapter on connections between care, sexuality and sex work is a good example here, as it presents the various scientific and feminist approaches as well as points of disagreement between them. In general, the choice of responding to certain opponents – white Catholic Europeans – rather than others, may explain the near-absence of two approaches that have acquired considerable importance in gender research since the turn of the century: intersectionality (combined observation of sex, race and class dimensions as well as intersections and interactions among them) and post-colonial studies. Those approaches contribute to the intellectual vitality of recent research and have been just as conducive to lively exchange among researchers. Indeed, one of the strong points of Qu’est-ce que le genre? is that it does not exclude any sides of research or debate – especially those concerning sexuality or the long under-known “queer” concept.

8The systemic aspect of many questions on gender comes through quite clearly in each chapter and justifies the extreme diversity of disciplines represented in the work. The following examples will give an idea of the kinds of interrelations at play. The study of representations in film has been largely fuelled by psychoanalysis (chapter by Sellier). Female athletes are now made to take gynaecological and biological tests to show they are women, though this practice is based on scientific postulates that were disqualified some time ago (chapter by Louveau). Young women seem to have integrated the ideas of unequal sharing of household tasks in couples and an occupational glass ceiling into their representations; from secondary education on they choose study paths more in line with their expectations about the amount of extra-occupational time they will have than their level of academic performance (chapter by Mosconi). Clearly the book has been guided and shaped by the principles of interdisciplinarity and concept circulation.

9Along with bi-categorization of the sexes (discredited by early works of Anne Fausto-Sterling and other studies showing the absence of any scientific consensus on sex-determining criteria), sexuality is a key concern throughout the work, as are social, family and filiation norms – all matters of direct interest to demographers.

10In this connection it should be noted that the book illustrates the vast quantity of scientific data available in all fields, including data obtained through surveys on such topics as sexuality, time allocation in couples and families, and academic streaming. The chapter endnotes could stand as reading lists for non-specialists in the various fields. Though not exhaustive, they do include the most important texts and authors. Few major names are missing – a genuine accomplishment for a work that makes no claim to be encyclopaedic.

11From yet a third perspective, the book can be seen as an illustration and a means of understanding the place of gender studies in both society at large and the academic world. It is from this angle that we can read the final chapter (by Sénac): a case study of what political sociology has termed “social problems” – a fine, solid contribution to critical analysis of the sciences.

12Gender studies are caught up in a complex game in which their legitimacy is contested on several fronts. Debates in the academic world bear first and foremost on recognition of gender studies, its concepts and methods, by the “legitimate” instituted disciplines. But the scientific exchanges cut both ways, as practitioners of gender studies – among them authors of this book (chapters by Vidal, Peyre and Wiels, Laufer and others) – can be quite critical of some of the most renowned research studies. This dual opposition generates arguments for a third opposition force, namely activist groups intent on making their attacks heard in the space of wider public debate. Research studies on gender thus take criticism from several different quarters, and the researchers are called upon to respond in what are generally incompatible terms and registers. In this sense, the book offers the reader a rare view into struggles to gain scientific legitimacy, struggles not usually waged in the general public eye.

Uploaded on on 02/07/2015
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